I think the question is self explanatory. It might also be naive. In the light of:

  • the FBI request to Apple to allow access to data on a phone
  • the protections of the fifth amendment
  • the Snowden leaks of NSA/ governmental practice

can a court order a person or organization (a witness?) to reveal a secret, whether incriminating or not?

I think this question is slightly different to the closely-related Can a US citizen be required to provide the authentication key for encrypted data on a confiscated computer?

Would it make a difference if the party being ordered and/or the target was not a US citizen/subject?

Can the court make a gag order on the request?

What penalties might apply for non-compliance?

  • They might be able to compel it if they offer amnesty for any crimes you may be admitting to. Constitution should apply to people regardless of citizenship I would think.
    – Patrick87
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 11:11
  • Can you clarify how this question is substantively different from the one you referenced?
    – feetwet
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 18:11

1 Answer 1


A court can generally compel anyone to reveal a secret, except a foreign diplomat. If the testimony would incriminate the person, they can remain silent, unless they have been granted immunity from prosecution. Courts cannot compel a person to violate the law, and there are laws requiring people to keep their yaps shut (e.g. not reveal state secrets, not violate attorney-client privilege). At the state level, there are so-called shield laws that allow reporters to refuse to reveal their sources. There is also immunity from testifying against your spouse. They would not compel you to testify in open court if doing so would endanger you, but you could be compelled to testify in secret session. Refusal to comply with a court order to testify could land you in jail. It's not clear to me that there is an upper limit on how long that could be, though I think the federal limit is 18 months. Applied to refusal to testify, once the witness's testimony would be moot (the trial is over), the witness would be released.

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